Design Courses for Equity in Teaching and Learning

As faculty adopt new formats and strategies to teach in classrooms modified for health and safety during a global pandemic, we should give some thought to how students will access and use learning resources. Select tools, materials, platforms, and learning activities with inclusion and equity in mind. What does this mean, and how can you incorporate equitable practices into your planning for the spring semester?

Consider how students will access instructional materials.

Is the revised course digitally inclusive? What resources must a student have to access the learning materials? Will students from all populations and backgrounds have equal access to the digital tools required to participate fully in learning activities? Several obstacles can limit student access to course materials and learning activities:

  • Status of internet and technology in the student’s home (low bandwidth, multiple users)
  • Cost of materials (textbooks, specialized equipment or software, fees for an exam proctoring service)
  • Physical limitations (for students with documented needs for accommodation for vision, hearing, mobility, or other accessibility issues)

Consider whether design assumptions might create course structures that limit equity.

We often talk about social interactions and microaggressions as sources of bias and discrimination. However, implicit biases can underly decisions about course structures and policies that create unintended obstacles to an equitable and inclusive classroom. Wheaton College describes strategies instructors can use to reflect on how best to promote equity and inclusion in their courses and teaching strategies.

Examine assumptions about the “ideal student.”

We often complain about underprepared students, which implies that the students in our classes do not have all the background knowledge or skills we would like them to have. How can we address the needs of the students we have in our classrooms?

One solution might be to begin instruction at an earlier point in skill development, meeting students where they are rather than where we wish they were. However, many instructors may not be able to begin instruction at such an early point in skill development and still meet the advanced learning goals for their course. An alternative strategy is to direct students to tutorials and other resources that will enable them to develop these skills outside of class and meet expectations for assignments and learning in our class.

Create a pre-test or skill diagnostic to identify and assess skills required to meet class expectations.

Students don’t always know what they don’t know. Students may arrive on campus with high confidence because their high school didn’t demand much and they are accustomed to earning top grades without much effort. They are misinformed but not to blame. Offer a low-stakes or no-stakes assessment to calibrate their skills. Direct students to tutorials and other resources that will enable them to develop the skills they need to meet expectations for assignments and learning in your class.

Select inclusive learning materials.

Consider the cultural accessibility of the reading materials you assign in your courses. Materials might be culturally inaccessible for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we can choose between two or more options that deliver the same content when we select course readings. For example, a classic film and a more recent film might both address the same cultural issue but the classic film might rely on characters that conform with negative cultural stereotypes whereas the contemporary film might tell the same story with characters that do not perpetuate negative stereotypes. The contemporary film will serve the same educational purpose and do so in a more inclusive manner.



Claudia J. Stanny, Ph.D., Director Emeritus
Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment
University of West Florida
Pensacola, FL